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Rebalancing the Biomedical Workforce

As several scientific luminaries wrote in 2014, there is a “severe imbalance between the dollars available for research and the still-growing scientific community in the United States.” As a result, there is a “hypercompetitive atmosphere in which scientific productivity is reduced and promising careers are threatened.”

This imbalance is the root of many ills. When there are far more scientists (and prospective scientists) than available funding, only a tiny percentage of grant applications get funded. In turn, scientists spend “far too much of their time writing and revising grant applications, and far too little thinking about science.” As well, funders themselves become more conservative and timid: “The system now favors those who can guarantee results, rather than those with potentially path-breaking ideas that, by definition, cannot promise success.”

To make matters even worse, hypercompetition actually incentivizes irreproducibility! As Alberts et al. wrote, scientists are pressured to “rush into print, cut corners, exaggerate their findings, and overstate the significance of their work.”

This is the worst of all worlds: hypercompetition encourages both scientists and funders to opt for incremental mediocrity, but then incentivizes everyone to overplay the results to the point of irreproducibility.

At the same time, many have noticed that it is too difficult to get regular funding for a consistent set of supporting roles, such as a staff scientist, staff statistician, and lab manager.

We should rebalance the biomedical research enterprise so that there are fewer trainees aiming for a tenured faculty position, more trainees aiming for a supportive role, and more staff positions available on a stable basis.